- Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
A hard land with a difficult history, Texas has always lent itself well to crime fiction. From the crime fiction greats who helped define the genre to those writers shaping the landscape of crime fiction today, Texas has a long tradition of social critiques and sendoffs of hypocrisy (the hallmarks of Texas crime fiction, in my opinion) delivered via murder mystery. Tales of Texas history may gaslight their audiences into believing in the state as a land of triumph, but we crime fiction readers know the dark, murderous truth about the land we call home….
Below, you’ll find an incomplete (of necessity) guide to Texas crime fiction, brought to y’all in honor of Texas Mystery Writers Month (that is, May). Emphasis is placed on well-known classic writers and the wide array of new crime fiction released in the past few years. We know we’re leaving out quite a few of the Texas mystery writer greats, and many of the good one-off novels. Some have gone out of print; others have simply dropped off our radar as we find new voices to champion.
(Nearly) all of the books cited in this piece are available on BookPeople’s shelves, and all are available for special order via BookPeople’s website. Here’s a link to a resource guide to Texas cozies (woefully neglected in this piece, and we do apologize). Stop, You’re Killing Me! has an impressively thorough guide to Texas mysteries. The Whitliff Collection has also put together an excellent resource guide to Texas mysteries as part of their Southwestern Writers Collection – you can view a pdf bibliography of Lone Star Sleuths here.
As a Texas Monthly article pointed out in this piece from 2013, Patricia Highsmith once lived in Dallas, a setting defined by capital-S Society, and made her career as the Henry James of pulp fiction, stripping back the beautiful veneers of characters to get to the rotten motivations and churning anxieties of the 1950s. Jim Thompson used his cheerful killers and sadistic sheriffs to critique the racial divides of the South, and in The Killer Inside Me, even has us cheering on his equal opportunity killers, as they forgo bigotry in favor of a more universally-minded corruption. Rick Riordan in the 80s and 90s helped define a city-based Texas crime fiction for a new era of start-ups and Californians, starting with Big Red Tequila, while Kinky Friedman’s hilarious and idiosyncratic Hill-Country-set detective novels helped define the rural romps that have complemented Thompson’s brutally dark portraits of East Texas.
These are the two main threads of Texas crime fiction still today – tales of the city and the hypocrisy beneath its polite surface, and stories of small town secrets, where no matter how much prejudice is visible on the surface, there’s always more hidden beneath. Joe R. Lansdale continues Thompson’s mantle (with added horror and humor) in his Hap & Leonard series, as well as his stand-alone novels The Thicket and Sunset & Sawdust, preserving the beauty of East Texas speech and nature while not shying away from the crass, casual brutality of East Texas lives, all while pointing out the absurdities of his setting and his characters.
Melissa Lenhardt’s Jack McBride series take place in similar territory, but in a much different context. Set in the fictional East Texas town of Stillwater, the series was inspired by a talk Lenhardt heard about Texas civic history comparing two towns over time. “One town was a boom and bust town, whose fortunes relied on the success of the latest industry, usually oil and gas. The other town focused on steadier, slower growth. They never got so caught up in the boom that they neglected to nurture other aspects of their economy,” she explained to us in an interview earlier this year. Her novel’s criminal kingpin ” likes the boom and bust model because he’s gotten rich from it either way. When people are doing well, they use his legitimate businesses. When things are going poorly, his illegal business is there to make people feel better.” Meanwhile, her more civically minded characters understand that “the boom and bust path isn’t sustainable, especially when young people are leaving, instead of moving in.”
Speaking of boom towns, Houston’s the happening place for several recent crime novels, each adding another layer to our understanding of sin in the sunset city. The oil towns of Houston and Beaumont provide particularly rich settings for crime fiction – Southern power dynamics come up against energy politics, inspiring tales of corruption and alienation, set in boardrooms, back rooms, highways and highrises.
Attica Locke, of Empire fame, has written two novels, Black Water Rising and Pleasantville, following lawyer Jay Porter as he fights for civil rights, uncovers vast political conspiracies, and solves quite a few murders. Her highly anticipated upcoming novel, Bluebird, Bluebird, is due out in September. Melissa Ginsberg explores alienation and jealousy on the Houston highways in her sultry debut, Sunset City. Amy Gentry uses the Houston suburbs as the perfect setting to explore instability of identity in her debut Good As Gone, detailing the fallout caused by a kidnapping victim’s return home after many years.
Over in Beaumont, Lisa Sandlin turned the PI formula on its head with her novel The Do-Right, featuring a naive private detective assisted by a world-weary secretary. Nic Pizzolatto, of True Detective fame, takes us on the run from New Orleans to Galveston in the violent and aptly named Galveston, while the writing trio Miles Arceneaux ventures up and down the Gulf Coast and back and forth in time in their salty tales.
The Hill Country is defined by the subgenres of fish-out-of-water tales and humerous stories continuing Kinky Friedman’s legacy. Austin music legend Jesse Sublett’s bass-playing, skip-tracing sleuth Martin Fender took the musician mystery to dark places and new heights in three now classic tales, while his most recent foray into crime writing explores the outrageous antics of the Overton Brothers, real-life football players-turned-robbers, in 1960s Austin Gangsters: Organized Crime That Rocked The Capital.
Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries explore small-town central Texas secrets, drawing occasional inspiration from the Texas of Shames’ childhood but containing a set of intertwined mysteries all its own. Samuel Craddock, Shames has said, is based on her own grandfather, a trusted problem-solver in his town even after giving up the mantle of legal authority.
George Wier’s charming and humerous small town novels – his website describes his works as a “Texas take on pulp adventure,” and we couldn’t agree more. Helen Curry-Foster’s Hill-Country-set Alice MacDonald Greer novels draw upon the author’s career as an environmental lawyer for a series sure to please all who appreciate the beauty of Central Texas, and the quirky figures that live there. Ben Rehder’s satiric Blanco County mysteries feature a central Texas game warden involved in an inordinate number of murders, despite his wish to stay out of trouble.
Austin-based lawyer and writer Mark Pryor mainly sets his tales overseas, but his latest, Hollow Man, featuring a musician and sociopath, continues the tradition of Austin mysteries grounded in a world of live music and the occasional dead body. Manning Wolfe, also a lawyer, has recently launched her Merit Badges series with Dollar Signs: Lady Lawyer vs. Boots King, an eclectic and entertaining legal thriller.
Gabino Iglesias, in Zero Saints, takes the reader from Mexico to Austin with protagonist Fernando as he flees danger at home, only to find more violence in his new city. Lisa Lutz’ latest novel, The Passenger, also stops off in the capital city, following a woman on the run after the suspicious death of her hated husband. She finds herself in Austin just long enough to switch identities with a woman named Blue in a bar, only to find herself pursued by Blue’s enemies.
South Texas has surprisingly few crime novels given how many stories the region has to tell – or at least, we weren’t able to find many while preparing this piece. The Land Grant, by Carlos Cisneros, is a legal thriller diving into a long-term dispute between heirs to an estate and the Catholic Church along the border. Rick Riordan helped bring San Antonio as a setting to mystery readers with his Tres Navarre series (before he moved into the world of children’s fiction). Although known for his San Antonio setting, we highly recommend his tale of murder, intrigue and copyright in the wild west of 90s start-ups, The Devil Went Down To Austin, to all Austinites. The tale is particularly notable for its hilariously dated technological threats combined with completely contemporary cutthroat competition.
West Texas is better represented in the genre as of 2017. Minerva Koenig’s tales of a reformed criminal relocated to West Texas as part of the Witness Protection Program celebrates the classic tough Texas heroine with a twist as the transplant grows into her new home. Tony Perez-Giese’s Send More Idiots takes us to El Paso and Juarez as a man searches for his brother, disappeared by a cartel. J. Todd Scott’s The Far Empty takes us into a generational feud between a sheriff and his son over the death of the sheriff’s wife, set against the background of cartels and corruption.
Ever since we wondered who shot J.R., North Texas has been a riveting setting for all kinds of fictionalized murder. Mark Gimenez’s The Color of Law guides the reader through crime and corruption in Dallas, while delivering an impassioned defense of a prostitute wrongfully accused of murder. Kathleen Kent’s The Dime takes us into the Dallas Police Department from the perspective of an outsider just transferred in from New York.
Reavis Wortham’s Red River mysteries explore life in small-town North Texas, as the townspeople experience the vast upheavals of mid-century America (along with a few murders). Alexandra Burt’s The Good Daughter takes us into a small North Texas town where uncovered bodies soon lead to uncovered family secrets. In Julia Heaberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans, a woman looks into her own appearance in a Texas field at age 16 and attempts to discover both her identity and the wider implications of her disappearance and reappearance.
Texas crime fiction is defined by ambiguity and ambition – an author may delight in the poetry of Texas vernacular one moment, while instilling horror in its content the next. The casual brutality of Texas history means the reader never has to worry about a murder’s plausibility (unlike Maine), and the complex, layered threads of human lives in Texas make for an endless number of stories. Like with many industries, Texas and California are the powerhouses of US crime fiction, but unlike the two states’ political narratives, the two centers of crime fiction don’t compete – they only complement.
One could argue with the notion of any one thread of Texas crime writing (although the legal thriller does seem to dominate in terms of form). Like the state itself, crime fiction reflects and rejects a number of legends, myths and uncomfortable truths. Texas stories, like Texas lives, do not restrict themselves to the lines on a map. The border is as artificial of a construct in crime fiction as it is in politics, and Texas-set crime novels are as likely to cross the border, or into another state or country, as any other American story.
Texas is not only a setting – it is also a large, nurturing environment for all kinds of writers, including many who choose not to write about Texas. Some would say that it’s easier to write about a place once a writer has moved on to a new location, and some of those best suited to write Texas tales are those with an emotional or physical distancing from the state itself. We haven’t mentioned any of the many authors who call Texas home for some or all of the year, yet set their works outside the state, and writing programs like the Michener Center draw plenty of budding writers to Texas, while the endless experiences lived in this state translate to endless more opportunities for artistic creation.
You can find the works listed above either on BookPeople’s shelves or available for special order via our website.